If you believed everything you saw on TV and in the movies, you’d probably think every gun in the country is registered on a database that the feds or your state officials keep up to date. But, in reality, very few guns have to actually be “registered” in our country. That doesn’t mean the transfer of firearms and the required paperwork isn’t confusing though. In fact, it’s a topic most gun owners should brush up on.

What is Firearm Registration?

In order to comprehensively address the topic of firearms registration, I will make two distinctions. The ­ first distinction is between the categories of firearms: those that are subject to the National Firearms Act (“NFA Firearms” – the focus of this post) and those that are not (“non-NFA Firearms” – covered in a future article). (I am avoiding other often-used terms, like “Title I Firearms,” “Title II Firearms” or “Class III Firearms,” as they are inaccurate and misleading.) The second distinction I will make is between registering a ­firearm, on the one hand, and undergoing an ownership transfer background check, on the other.

What is considered a non-NFA Firearm?

“Non-NFA Firearms” are the most commonly owned guns, and this category includes handguns (revolvers and semi-automatic pistols) and long guns (rifles and shotguns). Only a handful of states require registration of these types of guns. In fact, most states either do not require any registration of non-NFA Firearms or, like here in Pennsylvania, have laws that affirmatively prohibit registration of firearms. Check with a local attorney if you are unsure as to whether your state requires gun registration.

The premise of such non-registration laws is that registration is a step down a slippery slope, leading to eventual confiscation. Conversely, the motivation behind background checks is to ensure that those who are “Prohibited Persons” (such as felons) are not allowed to own guns.

Background Checks for Firearms

However, even if you live in a non-registration jurisdiction, your state will most likely (though not always) still require the transferee (the recipient) of certain non-NFA Firearms to undergo a background check (as mentioned above, for the purpose of making sure a transferee is not a “Prohibited Person”). This is done at a Federal Firearms Licensee (“FFL,” i.e. a dealer) who runs a background check on the transferee through the NICS (the National Instant Criminal Background Check System) database, though different states call the check by different names. This is always accompanied by the completion of an ATF Form 4473 (and some states require additional forms), which is the form that lists the various factors prohibiting gun ownership.

By way of illustration, all Pennsylvania handgun transfers must be subjected to a NICS check, with the completion of a Form 4473 by the transferee of the handgun. However, NICS checks (and therefore 4473s) are not required for long gun transfers in Pennsylvania. That means that a handgun that is owned in Pennsylvania but that was not properly transferred at an FFL (with a NICS check and Form 4473) is an illegal handgun, and its possession will subject the owner to criminal penalties. A long gun, however, as indicated above, can be transferred in Pennsylvania without an FFL-completed NICS check and Form 4473, and therefore you can transfer ownership of a long gun in Pennsylvania with just a handshake. (It is, however, strongly recommended that a Bill of Sale always be completed for such transfers).

How to Register a Firearm in Certain States

As distinguished from a NICS background check with the completion of ATF Form 4473, the registration of a non-NFA Firearm in a state that requires it will likely involve bringing the unloaded firearm to the appropriate police station for the purpose of alerting the municipality of its presence. This is typically done almost immediately after the ownership transfer and NICS background check. Check with a local attorney on the speci­fic procedure in your state.

Background Checks as a Back-Door Registration System?

It has been claimed, and rightly so, that many states’ background check procedures in fact constitute “back-door” registrations, since the final result is the same: The government knows who has what guns. Pennsylvania is a good example of this. Even though we have a statute on the books that specifically outlaws any ­firearms registration, a dealer-facilitated background check must accompany all handgun transfers, and the form that the transferee ­fills out is then kept by the Pennsylvania State Police.

However, the storage of ­firearms purchaser information, while currently an unfortunate feature of many states’ ­firearms transfer procedure, is not a necessary feature of a background check per se. In other words (and here I describe not what the law is but what it could be if citizens were willing to act to change the laws), it would be entirely reasonable for a dealer to conduct a background check on a transferee by simply calling the state police and getting a thumbs up or thumbs down on the transferee without generating unnecessary paperwork for storage purposes. The state police could limit its record keeping to the fact that a background check was done on a specific ­firearm from a speci­fic dealer, without any reference to the identity of the transferee. Only the dealer would maintain a photocopy of the transferee’s driver’s license, which he would only be mandated to provide to law enforcement if a warrant was issued for its provision in the case that a crime had been committed with the ­firearm in question.

Such a process would prevent a background check from becoming a backdoor registration but would also address legitimate law enforcement needs. Since this is not the case at present, the only ­firearms owners who are currently not subject to any kind of back-door registration are those who have purchased their ­firearms from private, non-licensed individuals in one of the states permitting such transfers to occur without a dealer or background check.

[A version of this article was originally published by Josh Bodene in Concealed Carry Magazine, October 2015 (pages 84-88). Image credit: Concealed Carry Magazine.]